Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The impact of Nanyang Academy in Malaysia Arts


The history of Art in Malaysia took an alternative route with the arrival of Europeans and Chinese in the region in the 20th Century.1 During the British colonial era, the officers of the East India Company commissioned talented artists who were mostly Englishmen and women connected one way or another with the company, to paint the scenes and landscapes of the country. Little wonders then that the popular genre of the day was that of Turner and Constable as well Realism of the Pre-Repellents era. This continued well into the 19th Century and blended with other forms and movements such as Impressionism, Cubism, Surrealism and Futurism. Besides the English, the Chinese too played an important role in the movement of Malaysia contemporary art. In 19372 a group of artists from China who had studied in the Shanghai Fine Art School, Shanghai Fine Art School and Shanghai University of Art migrated to the South East Asia to set up Nanyang Academy of Fine Art.3 The academy was founded by Lim Hak Tai together with a group of artists in Singapore. The academy has groomed and produced talented artists from Singapore, Malaysia and other countries in the region. Singapore then was part of Malaysia before being separated in 1965.4

Lim Hok Tai

The Changes The presence of Nanyang Academy of Art in Malaysia contemporary art brought about a radical change in the way traditional artists viewed the concept of art as the means to express their artistic skills. The artists who run the academy had received their education from art schools in Shanghai, Canton, Amoy, and were exposed to western art particularly that of Paris. For the first time in the country, or probably in the region, art education became a formal learning process that relied on organized curriculum with recognitions awarded to the students who later became influential figures in the promulgation of art in the country. Lim Hak Tai, the first Principal of the academy, introduced the methodology in the teaching of art as the subject, also helped create a style called 'Nanyang Style'5, the style that's uniquely Malaysian. The campus was located at 49, St. Thomas Walk, Singapore,6 accomplished the vision of producing artists armed with adequate knowledge and skills in subjects connected to art. The academy became one of the primary sources of references for the development of curriculums in the teaching of art, which includes the study of composition and various techniques of presenting arts. The Effect Nanyang Acedemy of Art is responsible in effecting a major change in the presentation of artwork from the hand scroll panting to easel painting. The format became the guiding principle for artists to paint their composition in top-to-bottom style to right-to-left as practised by western artists. The academy also introduced a new method of coloring with the introduction of function of colors for arts as depicted by the artwork by Cheong See Piang (1959).

Cheong See Pieng, Tropical Life, 1959

In 'Tropical Life' Cheong See Pieng presents his work in easel position instead of the traditional hand scroll format. The main theme of the painting is the story of a Malay family with each character in the painting performing his/her role. In the painting, the main characters i.e the man and the boy is detached from the daily feminine activity performed by the women and the girl. The artist uses a range of colors which is in stark contrast from the traditional Chinese.

Lai Foong MoiMorning in The Kampong 1959.

The painting by Lai Foong Moi is an example of the influence of western art in that it introduced the concept of perspective. A Malay lady as the center eye point with a house in the distance creates the sense of depth. Together with the use of color not commonly found in a Chinese painting, Fooi Moi has created a new form of art, which depends on the sense of perspective, lighting composition and color.

Chuan Thean Teng, Catching the Fowls 1962

Chuan Thean Teng uses top-angle approach in the painting 'Catching the Fowls' to add a dramatic feel of the action as well as create the sense of movement since the subject is not the same as objects usually used for a still-life. Done in Batik, the painting is uniquely Malaysian. From all the work done by the students and the artist of Nanyang Academy of Art, it shown how they are encouraged to represent the natural environment of the surroundings in order to connect art with the socio-economic events of the era. Their minds are constantly challenged to produce works with strong cultural identity based on the knowledge they acquired at the academy. Conclusion It is amazing to conclude how a group of artists trained in Shanghai managed to firmly establish a genre that later came to be known as 'Nanyang Style' - the style that has a strong cultural identity that's truly Malaysian. With the introduction of organized syllabus and curriculum of teaching art, Nanyang Academy of Art started a wave of revolution that gave birth to the creation of Malaysia contemporary art, a genre that's uniquely Malaysian.


1. Reza Piyadasa (2001), Rupa Malaysia, Meninjau Seni Lukis Moden Malaysia, Balai Seni Lukis Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur. Pg 9

2. (1999), A Brief History of the NAFA Alumni Association,

3. Kwok Kian Chow(2000), Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and the Beginnings of the "Nanyang School",

4. (2000), Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts,

5. (1999), A Brief History of the NAFA Alumni Association,
6. (1999), A Brief History of the NAFA Alumni Association,

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